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The best PC games 2021
A growing shortlist, whittled down from an epic list, of the best PC games ever.
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The not-so-humble PC is the biggest gaming platform on the planet, and will likely remain so as long as we have electricity and an Internet connection (in that order). Amid the sheer quantity of games released – thousands every year when you take the bright indie space into account – there’s a growing list of quality titles. The list below is all killer, no filler, and hopefully has something for everybody.
This dragon may be long in the tooth, especially in the graphics department, but there's simply no denying how ambitious and immersive Skyrim is. (And hey, these visuals can be easily pepped up to more modern standards with a hi-res texture mod.)
Every gamer worth their salt needs to experience an Elder Scrolls title and at the time of writing this is the best one ever built by the talented artisans at Bethesda. Even those of us who know this game like the back of our hand (thanks to hundreds of hours of play) can hear the siren song to return to it every now and then. Such is the power of its world-building.
That said, the ludicrously deep mythology, insane amount of quests and dungeons are only half of the appeal here.
Skyrim offers you a crazy amount of agency when it comes to designing your protagonist, the foretold Dragonborn warrior whose decisions shall shape the fate of this world. You can literally be anybody or anything you want.
Heck, you'll probably lose hours in the editor, molding yourself into any heroic or villainous ideal you want from any fantasy tale you've ever consumed. Then, as icing on the cake, you can proceed to imbue them with super hero level powers stolen from Game of Thrones Season 8 sized dragons.
Honestly, just typing this makes me want to start up a fresh character. For the ninth time.
Blizzard Entertainment is a wonder. When all this developer knew was real-time strategy games it understandably drew a ton of mirth when announcing an intention to take on Everquest style MMOs. End result: World of Warcraft, and now Blizzard more or less owns the genre.
Years later, when it announced Overwatch, its first foray into the hyper-competitive world of first-person shooting, the same naysayers came along and were shut up completely. 2016's Overwatch has since grown into a global esports phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing down.
Thanks to constant evolution, this incredibly vibrant and stylish team shooter continues to dazzle and devour the hours of some 40 million players a month at one point (2018 figures). Feels like a worthy experiment to me...
The hook is simple. Overwatch is a colourful team-based shooter game starring a diverse cast of powerful heroes, each of them with a unique playstyle and a range of table-turning special moves.
You know what? Think "Street Fighter II meets a shooter" and you're not far off. Matches are fast, frenetic and almost always geared towards contesting objectives, communicating like battle-hardened Navy Seals and coordinating your individual special gifts while covering one another's weaknesses.
Even after all these years, Overwatch hasn't lost its edge and remains an exhilarating online blast that's easy to pick up and incredibly difficult to master.
Few role-playing experiences in gaming can match that of becoming Commander Shepard. Over the course of a triple-digit hours space-opera trilogy, you'll feel like the most powerful decision maker in an entire galactic federation of species. On a less macro level, you'll come to adore your expanding crew of shipmates whose hearts and lives rest in the palm of your hand.
This Legendary Edition isn't technically a remake, but it still represents insane value for money. You're getting three cracking RPGs here -- of particular significance is the Empire Strikes Back-esque middle child. This is arguably the highest watermark we'll ever see of BioWare, genre king responsible for greats like KOTOR, Jade Empire and more.
To slide into the heavy armour of Shepard is to set course for special ops missions, intergalactic political intrigue and, well, a bevy of hot aliens down to romance in your area. Your official mission statement is to take down a rogue Spectre (think: space Texas Ranger) who has unearthed worrying precursor technology. Cue: a planet hopping investigation that's equal parts dialogue choices and third-person shooting.
The former has aged much better than the latter. BioWare's script is tight, the VO is on point and this universe is overflowing with history. If you can forgive some slightly clunky, cover-based shooting -- which to be fair improves as the series goes on -- then this is a no-brainer purchase.
Meticulously encapsulating (and taking the ever-loving piss out of) Los Angeles is what Rockstar North does best. You need only replay GTA San Andreas to confirm this fact. That said, both on a technical and narrative level GTA V is ambitious, even by this peerless developer's terms.
On a solo level you can expect to get more than your money's worth in a Michael Mann-esque crime drama that effectively allows you to shift perspectives between three ne'er do wells. How you chose to further their respective bank robbing careers is up to you.
At your thievin' finger tips is a stupidly large sandbox that encourages experimentation. When you push it, a subsystem you didn't even consider will most likely push right back, often to kill you in a hilarious way.
As if that wasn't generous enough, Rockstar provides a staggeringly deep online mode that is like PlayStation Home meets a gangsters paradise.
Emergent hilarity will find you time and time again if you wander out into the state of San Andreas with nothing but a gat in your hand and money on your mind.
There are also a plethora of structured PvP modes to chew through, and some of the most gratifying co-op bank heists ever crafted by the hand of man (or is that Mann?).
Last but not least, GTA V's modding community is out of control. The "real-life" texture packs and VR functionality that have been shoehorned in are more mind-blowing than a gangland execution.
Much like the aggressive Doomslayer it championed in 2016, id Software hit the ground running, in an absolute berserker charge, when it designed the follow-up. Doom Eternal is still a firm proponent of "push forward" combat, where the lion's share of your health ammo and armour must be yanked out of your foes by means of risky execution techniques. If you're not known for your ability to think on your feet and adapt, you're gonna be demon chow here.
Eternal has also ramped up the verticality of its many mini arena battles. The DoomSlayer is now quite adept at flinging himself off the various monkey bars and launch pads sprinkled about the derelict science facilities of Mars. Even better, his basic movement has been greatly enhanced by an 8-way directional air dash that's great for limboing around heat-seeking rockets or nipping in to introduce your new wrist blade to somebody.
Love has been lavished upon a wonderful new range of boomsticks, too. Repeated, skilful use of these will net you better damage stats, along with table-turning upgrades (case in point: a "get over here" grappling hook attachment for the super shotgun).
Throw in a range of asymmetrical multiplayer modes and an ultra-nightmare difficulty that separates the wheat from the chaff, and Doom Eternal is a demon slaying shooter well worthy of possession.
With Portal 2, Valve was posed with a difficult question. How do you one-up your last effort, an almost universally loved, genre-defining puzzler that made people question the very existence of a delicious baked good dessert. The answer: layer in a co-op campaign, more devious puzzle mechanics, an AI travel buddy voiced by Stephen Merchant, maniacal audio diaries by J.K. Simmons and a showdown with an old nemesis.
Picking up from your almost-escape from whackjob science venture Aperture Science, you must once again pick your way through a technological madhouse of test chambers and unlimited ammo turrets. Forget about combat. The portal "gun" you're packing is limited to creating both an entry and exit dimensional gateway.
Along with a series of mind-bending portal challenges and platforming undertaken in back areas that haven't been up to OH&S for a few centuries, you have to contend with the "help" provided by a robotic guide named Wheatley (Merchant). He is, in a word, a moron.
His unintentional comedy is flanked by a series of side-splitting mission statements made by Aperture's founder, eccentric billionaire Cave Johnson (Simmons). Even if you don't dig on testing your noodle to its limits, Portal 2 is to be acquired because it's by far one of the most sharply written video game comedies ever made.
As fond as I am of the gravity-defying 2006 version, and as angry as I was when the promising Prey 2 was cancelled, this entry is dedicated to a whole lot of love for Arkane Studios' Prey.
It's a game that empowers players to try new things, not just in gameplay but also in character, and make narrative decisions that have big and often unforeseen consequences.
The minute-to-minute gameplay regularly and seamlessly shifts between tense and intense, plus there's a clever (but subtle) risk/reward upgrade system that makes you trade power fantasy for greater vulnerability.
It is in every sense of the word a modern-day classic, and one of the best action-RPGs ever made. In fact, it's so good that game-breaking bugs weren't enough to stop me from finishing it (though the bugs have been patched now, so you should dive in if you haven't already).
Red Dead Redemption II
- RELEASE DATE: 26/10/18
- DEVELOPER: Rockstar Games
- PUBLISHER: Rockstar
Let's draw quick and shoot straight here: 2010's Red Dead Redemption was the undisputed king of cowboy games. Not only that, it was one of the most mind-blowing open-world games ever made. Grand Theft Autos included.
Rockstar being Rockstar, they somehow managed to eclipse Redemption completely with this follow up (which is technically a prequel). They've gone full Dances with Wolves here. Even if you don't usually dig on the Western genre, you'd have to be dead inside not to be moved by the artistry on display here.
Our tale centres on the fate of Arthur Morgan, number two ne'er-do-well in an outlaw gang that's being shown the door, violently, by progress and the modernisation of federal law agencies. Resistant to change, your lovable band of miscreants will be talked into a series of "one last scores" to go out with a bang. Fans of the first game already know how well that goes down.
Plot aside, Rockstar's reimagining of America represents cutting-edge video game design. It's teeming with deadly wildlife, deadlier dynamic "stranger" encounters and just a frankly absurd attention to detail. Basically and everywhere you look, there's pure gaming gold in them thar hills.
Before there was the division of Mass Effect Andromeda (or Mass Effect 3 before that), BioWare was a developer many gamers saw as godlike.
While Baldur's Gate was the start of that legend, BioWare cemented itself as a storytelling powerhouse with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Though not part of the official canon, such was its impact that parts of BioWare's Star Wars story have started slipping back into official post-George Lucas Star Wars lore.
At the time, the graphics were top-notch, and the Star Wars soundscape was understandably pitch-perfect. However, the real shining star was the sheer depth of gameplay mechanics and a plot twist so awesome that even 14 years after release, I won't mention for risk of spoiling it.
It's still that good. Given the shaky quality of Star Wars games (and their stories, where relevant) in recent years, it's important to flag that the expectation that there were still amazing Star Wars stories to tell after the release of the divisive prequel movies started with Knights of the Old Republic.
I loved and had finished this game before I even knew how to pronounce its title. At this point of my gaming life, I was almost exclusively a fan of real-time-strategy and first-person-shooter games.
I'd wager the only reason I even took a punt on Deus Ex was because I mistakenly thought it was an FPS.
How wrong I was, and how glad I was to be so wrong. The first thing that grabbed me was the conspiracy theory-rich storytelling. The next thing was the player empowerment through gameplay choices.
This'll likely sound silly in light of the countless action-RPGs that have been released in the last 17 years, but I was blown away by the fact that I could hack a door open, steal a code to open it or blow it off its hinges.
However, more important than this was how I was genuinely stressed out by the branching storyline, to the point where I created specific capital-letter saves at important junctures.
Sometimes it was just to test what would happen. Other times, it was so I could return to that decision and see how the game played out afterwards. Deus Ex hasn't aged so well visually (mods can address that to a certain extent), but its gameplay is still incredible today.
The thing I'll always chuckle about with The Witcher 3 is how much I love the game, even though I sank way more hours into the side quests and world exploration than I did into the main campaign.
That's not because I didn't enjoy the main storyline, far from it; it's because there are so many worthy distractions in The Witcher 3, they were impossible for me to ignore.
To put this into context, one of my friends has played close to 36 hours of the game and has unlocked 57 percent of the achievements, I assume by playing the main path. My play time is currently at 62 hours and I've only unlocked 23 percent of the achievements.
The Witcher 3 is a game I return to during times of quiet gaming because you can pick up where you left off (especially if you love the side quests like I do), and it's always rewarding.
It helps that it's gorgeous, particularly on a high-end PC. But really, CD Projekt Red has crafted such a beautifully realised world, the Continent has fast become my preferred digital holiday destination.
Disco Elysium - The Final Cut
- RELEASE DATE: 15/10/19
- DEVELOPER: ZA/UM
- PUBLISHER: ZA/UM
Disco Elysium is an RPG that's as clever as it is dark. Mechanically speaking, it's an isometric whodunnit that puts a new spin on ye olde Dungeons & Dragons tabletop system. It's also a game where you have an internal debate with the 24 sections of your own brain. There really isn't anything out there like it.
The setup is simple enough. You're a detective who has 30 hours to solve the mystery of a hanging body found in the yard of a hostel. Slight problem: you've had the mother of all benders the previous night, to the point where you've given yourself legit partial amnesia. Cue: a literal conversation with your Reptilian Brain who seems to be all about ditching this case.
I'll not say much more than that, suffice to say you'll need to begin your very own mental makeover from that point. You can decide what "class" of detective you wish to be (think: empath, abusive or details-driven savant) and then it's time to get your gumshoe on.
The more you talk to people, the more you can fire those neurons up in your thinking machine to better inform and empower the different voices who reside there. Some are angels on your shoulder who steer you towards common sense and logical conclusions rooted in facts. Others are renegades who urge you to act on violent, amoral instinct.
Bottom line: game design rarely gets this fascinating and inventive. Expand your horizons and be amazed by the result.
This game is a rare breed. You'll finish it and then later on wish there was some sort of selective memory erasing technology to allow you to play it all over again, fresh. All that being said, I'm going to be a little vague on the plot details today.
All you really know is this: during a transatlantic flight gone bad in the 1960s, you become a sole survivor washed up on a lighthouse built in the middle of nowhere. A quick snoop through it reveals an automated submersible that whisks you to the impossible -- Rapture, a secret city under the sea.
Despite its lofty name, this place is a hellhole of scientific experiments gone mad which have sparked a civil war fought between the highly mutated haves and have nots. You'll have to take a "when in Rome" approach by scooping up whatever kooky firearms and super power enhancements you can find.
BioShock is a thinking person's shooter -- cleverly leveraging your environment along with your powers of telekinesis, fire and electricity can give you a huge edge. All that being said, to quickly get ahead in this mutant-eat-mutant world is to find and destroy the Big Daddy juggernauts who clomp about. I'll not spoil the whys of it, just know that they're probably the most thrilling and challenging boss encounters this side of Shadow of the Colossus.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
- RELEASE DATE: 30/11/99
- DEVELOPER: Ensemble Studios
- PUBLISHER: Microsoft
Clearly, 1999 was a hell of a year for gaming. Not counting the two games already listed here, it also included System Shock 2, Unreal Tournament, and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.
There are a lot of reasons why Age of Kings received universal acclaim, has been HD-ified, is set to receive a Definitive Edition and is beloved by fans still today.
Not only did it improve on what Ensemble had built in the original Age of Empires, it added genre-defining features, like idle unit buttons, a town bell for calling villagers back to safety, and the option to customise keys for maximum actions-per-minute (a feature we take for granted nowadays).
Before the Total War series was born, Age of Empires was the best way to have fun while learning about history, but mostly it was about building a sprawling town, appropriate defences and an army for taming the hostile game world.
While core units were familiar across the board, which made learning other factions a whole lot easier, the unique units helped define your play style (Longbowmen were amazing).
I honestly never got into competitive multiplayer, but I lost dozens of hours to co-op bot matches against the challenging AI, which often ended with my friends and me bunkering down at the spawn point that was the most easily defended.
Half Life 2
- RELEASE DATE: 16/11/04
- DEVELOPER: Valve Corporation
- PUBLISHER: Valve Corporation
It was a six-year wait between the original mostly fantastic Half-Life and its sequel. And Half-Life was already a game-changer, most notably in the mod space.
Half-Life 2, on the other hand, is still a peerless first-person-shooter experience. It doesn't need fancy RPG systems or branching narratives to be effective.
Instead, it's built atop tight shooter gameplay, amazing world-building, and a narrative approach that rewards curious players eager to learn more about this beautifully realised story.
Enemies are diverse, the set pieces are suitably epic, the soundtrack is fantastic, and it gave the gaming world the gravity gun: a weapon that let you turn a toilet into a bullet.
Instead of doing a lazy sequel that offered more of the same, Valve went all out by creating an entirely new enemy. It's the kind of follow-up that feels like the developer could create a whole new game set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Or maybe they could just make Half-Life 3.
Come on, now. You didn't think you could get through a best of list without seeing this did you? Though Fortnite has its detractors in the PC gaming community (think: that weird hatred that comes from being "too popular") I have to give it its dues here today.
Basically, any game that is big enough to award a $3 million esports prize gets to be on this list by default.
"What's a Fortnite?" you might be asking yourself, as you sit on Mars in your cave, with two fingers in your ears. It's a third-person shooter battle royale that's equal parts gunplay and building cubby houses.
Essentially, 100 players are air dropped onto an island and are asked to go the tonk until only one of them remains. Success revolves around tactically using your terrain (or just building your own to get that Obi wan "higher ground advantage").
Scavenging the world for better randomised guns is also a must, as is getting out of Dodge when the playable area shrinks (out of bounds is cancer). Those are the basics of what can become an incredibly complex and intense online experience.
Go in forewarned, though: competition is fierce and the dance-based taunts from nine year olds, merciless.
League of Legends
I find it very unlikely that you haven't already heard the legends of this. The legends of the ridiculously large league of players who play...er, well, League of Legends. Once played by roughly 100 million players globally, this multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA) has become an esport on its own level.
New champions are crowned constantly, too, as the tactics are ever-changing in this rapid-fire video game where actions and defeats are measured in milliseconds and there's a playstyle for every taste.
You can doggedly hold choke points as a Leonidas-level tank, turn the fortunes of your team with a support class, or shred lifebars with the showiest crit hits this side of an anime.
That being said, a lot of hard work and preternatural hand-eye coordination stands between you and the big leagues. Effective time management of your forces and having good communication with players willing to dovetail into one cohesive strategy are a must.
Even better, a constantly expanding roster of champions means this hyper-competitive battlefield never has a chance to go stagnant. Consider yourself warned: the large-scale conflicts of League of Legends become sheer addiction in no time flat.
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